Cyber-bullying is a hot topic these days. Many social networking sites have policies directed toward preventing cyber-bullying. Facebook is one of those sites, having been the venue for several high profile bullying incidents recently . Facebook’s policy directs victims of cyber-bullying to report offensive content posted on Facebook media. Such a policy is ineffective, however, for cases such as that of the recently released Casey Anthony. Since her high-profile murder trial began, “I Hate Casey Anthony” groups have erupted like wildfire. Nancy Grace’s program on the TV channel Headline News reported tonight (07/18/11) that there were some 77,000 people who “liked” these groups, one of who’s profile picture is a sign saying “No baby killers… Violators will be shot.” It isn’t much of a stretch to say this group supports the death of Casey Anthony, a woman found not guilty by a jury of her peers. Comments on the page’s wall include, “I’ll snap that bitches neck wanna see?” and “LETS KILL THIS BITCH.” One group even set up a manhunt for her, where those joining the group can take a poll how they wish for her to die.
Putting the highly controversial verdict aside for a moment, cyber-bullying is a hot topic right now, but it appears that Facebook still has a long way to go with its bullying policies when groups sponsorship of a person’s murder is an acceptable focus. It raises some important questions about how we want to use the Internet in a free society. Speech is regulated differently in privately managed forums like Facebook. There is no Constitutional obligation to permit speech that some would find offensive, only business objectives. There is no right to speak beyond that which the forum allows. But can the law be used to force Facebook to take down the pages that clearly appear to incite violence? The U.S. Supreme Court case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire stands as the landmark case for determining whether to prosecute a person for speech that incites others to violence. The Court held that “insulting or ‘fighting words,’ those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [that] the prevention and punishment of… have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.” There is also the concurrence from Brandenburg v. Ohio where Justice Black argued that, even if most speech should be protected, acts like falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre could be punished because it was “speech brigaded with action.” It seems to me that these pages easily cross the line.
One question then is, are these pages cyber-bullying or outright threats that should be criminally prosecuted? Reports abound of people lashing out against Casey Anthony look-alikes. I can imagine that people who have been whipped into such a frenzy by so-called news outlets and other protest groups could be convinced that they were doing the right thing by taking vigilante action. Should cyber-bullying only apply if the target is a minor? I don’t think so. I think that cyber-bullying is just a name we give to stalking, harassment and defamation that is perpetrated by kids. Although there is a growing stigma associated with it, it is my opinion that there is still a level of tolerance for childish hijinks despite the harm that it can do. Regardless of what we call it, one question that remains is, what is taking Facebook so long to shut down these groups? They swat down apps that purport to help people load their Facebook friends onto Google+ in days or hours, but there are at least a dozen Casey Anthony groups up right now. Is Facebook only adjusting their policy to suit its interests or the public’s whim? Do they only block out competitors and pages that make headlines and leave other hate groups up to sow the seeds of violence until its too late? What level of responsibility should Facebook take for monitoring these pages? The answer may be “none at all.” I’m referring, of course, to the effects of the CDA safe harbor that is probably playing a role in this behind the scenes. The CDA § 230 protects services providers if they take no role in filtering content; if they act merely as a conduit for the speech of others. The CDA gives the service provider immunity, but still leaves the speaker liable for their tortious and/or criminal speech, so maybe these groups are a good thing because they provide law enforcement with all the information necessary to keep an eye on people who may pose an actual threat.
In light of all this, do you think Facebook’s anti-cyber bullying policy is sufficient? I suppose the next question would be, what if she was found guilty? Would the pages be acceptable then? Can murderers file defamation lawsuits? It appears these questions may be too tricky for Facebook to even consider. Perhaps I have a new question for next year’s final exam…